Behind the imposing white facade of Oriam Scotland’s performance centre, Hearts are working quietly to improve their own development potential. Signing eight teenagers on professional contracts last week signals serious intent. Recruiting ex-Hibs midfielder John Rankin and former Riccarton graduate Dale Carrick to their youth coaching staff merely reinforces it.
While those higher up may be preoccupied with foreign recruits underperforming at first-team level, Craig Levein and Roger Arnott continue to expand and enhance the Hearts academy. Crucially, more coaching staff are on board with the potential to progress through the system like the kids they mentor.
Arnott, the academy manager, hears the “too many foreigners” critique but retains quiet confidence that his work and that of others will bear fruit in years to come. Last week he announced the biggest single intake of Riccarton academy graduates in history when eight under-17s agreed professional contracts.
He explains the pride felt by those involved in the process. The inherent philosophy that Hearts should always produce their own players was challenged when nine non-Scots joined head coach Ian Cathro’s first-team squad in January. Anyone concerned by that sizeable influx should rest assured that Arnott and his staff are laying more local foundations for the future.
“The fans won’t always know the hard work being put in behind the scenes. We’re trying to tell them a bit more of the story and this is a great example,” he told the Evening News. “These eight young players are the success of it. This is the proudest moment for me apart from when they pull on a first-team jersey and make their debut.
“All the hard work which goes into making an academy what it is, finding the best players through recruitment, it’s behind the scenes. We have the best environment for developing players in my opinion, but we need the players first. The manager will always look to bring players through. If they’re not there in the academy, they must come from somewhere else. Sometimes the best value for money is players from abroad.”
Arnott explained the background to each of the kids who will join Hearts full-time this summer. Their aim is a first-team breakthrough in the next three to four years.
“Euan Henderson is a striker who joined us at under-15s from Hutchie Vale,” he said. “He can play out wide or as a central striker. He’s excelled this year and was involved in Sean Dillon’s testimonial last week. He’s quick, a good finisher with good technical ability. We think he’s got a big chance.
“Jay Sandison [no relation to Jimmy] has been with us since under-10s. He comes from Fife and he’s a full-back. He’s actually been like the sleeper. He’s come through each level but in the past year has really excelled since going to under-17s. He’s a hard-working kid who gets up and down the line, likes running with the ball and putting crosses into the box.
“Connor Smith isn’t 16 until next February. He’s part of the SFA performance school at Broughton High School but he’d tell you himself he isn’t academically minded. This is the pathway for him. He’s an attacking central midfielder who is very technical and skilful with a great range of passing. He scores goals by getting beyond the striker and getting on the end of crosses. He also works hard going back.
“Dean Ritchie is originally from Scotland but was living in Hong Kong with his family. He was part of a Chelsea soccer school programme there. He moved back to Scotland with his mum to live in Stirling and we got him in. He’s a holding central midfielder who came to us at under-14s. He uses the ball well and looks after it. He keeps the game really simple and has excelled year-on-year. He’s well worthy of his professional contract.”
The other four were part of the Scotland Under-16 Victory Shield squad. “Chris Hamilton was the captain and is a centre-back who can play right-back. He might end up playing a holding midfield role. He turns 16 this summer and joined us from Crossgates in Fife when he was eight. He’s been here a long time.
“Anthony McDonald is an attacking midfielder who can play centrally or in off the right side. He’s left-footed and technically very good in one-versus-ones. He runs at people, has good awareness of the game and scores goals. He joined us at under-14s from Livingston.
“Harry Cochrane is a central midfielder who turns 16 in April. He’s been involved with the Scotland squad and has played in our under-20s. He’s a very energetic midfielder, technically great with a good range of passing. He’s a box-to-box player, probably more attack-minded but can do the defensive aspect too. Harry was at Rangers until under-13s but he saw a better pathway here and joined us.
“Marc Leonard joined us just after Harry. He was with us at under-10s, then opted to sign for Rangers but has now come back. He’s a striker who can play in the No.10 role or in central midfield. Again, he’s been in the Scotland squads and plays in our under-20s most weeks. He’s actually been involved in a couple of bounce matches with the first team and been excellent. He’s a good prospect.”
The secret to their progress is being constantly challenged against older players. “A lot of our under-17s play in the under-20s at the moment. That means a lot of our under-15s are playing in the under-17s, so our best players are always getting challenged,” emphasised Arnott. “They’re always getting stressed and taken out of their comfort zone. That’s what makes you improve. You get stale if you just play at one level.
“Hopefully, in the next two or three years, we’ll see the rewards on the pitch at Tynecastle. We have to get these players playing regularly in the under-20 squad first for a year, then get them out on loan the year after, then look to be pushing towards the first team. The manager will be looking. We’ve sat down, looked at these players and we have a plan for them all.”
Rankin, now 33, is helping Hearts youngsters with the transition from under-17s to under-20s. He is captain of Queen of the South but is thriving in a part-time coaching role at Riccarton. “When Ian Cathro came in as head coach, he wanted more coaching staff on the training pitch so he took Andy Kirk with him. Andy was coaching our under-17s and under-20s, so I had a vacancy,” said Arnott.
“What has worked really well for us, and this is part of the club and Craig’s strategy, is to have potential future coaches in the system who can progress. They might or might not become the manager one day but it’s worked really well so far. We had Robbie Neilson in to start with and then he stepped up. We brought Liam Fox in and Jon Daly. Now we’ve brough John Rankin in.
“Gary Kirk, our head of recruitment, knows John from Dundee United so there was a link there. We had a chat and a day later he was in. That’s his enthusiasm. He was like: ‘Brilliant, this will be great. I’m really looking forward to it’.
“For me, he is the ultimate professional. He’s had a great upbringing down at Manchester United and has a lot of experience. He treats the game with a lot of respect and these are all great values to pass on to young players. He also knows the game inside out and understands what it takes to be a footballer.
“At under-17s, where it’s about understanding the game and developing game knowledge, we need people who have played the game to pass on that detail. That’s why we brought John in. He’s been fantastic on the training pitch, he’s really enthusiastic. His level of detail is really good.”
Carrick is further down the ladder working with the under-14s but is already highly regarded. The 23-year-old striker was among the 2012 generation of academy kids who reached the first team at Tynecastle. He moved to Kilmarnock and is now on loan at Cowdenbeath from Livingston. Playing part-time in League Two allows him to hone his coaching skills in an environment he knows only too well.
“I actually spoke to Dale when he left to join Kilmarnock [in 2015],” recalled Arnott. “He had done Level 1 and 2 SFA coaching courses through our community coach Alan White, and Alan said he just had a great manner with young kids.
“Dale wanted to focus on his playing career at that time because he was still playing full-time. He’s now more local so it works for him to think about coaching. He’s keen to do more and he’s been great because he understands what it’s like here and what it takes to make it.
“At under-14s. that starts to become important because the boys are becoming young adults. They need to be focused. Dale speaks to them very well so now he needs to learn how to coach. He’s got knowledge in his head but the difficulty for players is how to impart that to young players. We want to keep him here as long as we can.”